Illya had spent the four years of his involuntary retirement as far away from Manhattan and all things UNCLE as he could. Part of that distance had been equally involuntary, due to the necessities of recuperation and extended debriefing, but the last forty-two months had been by choice.
There was only so much he could ask of himself, and chronicling Napoleon’s comings and goings in the field while he drove a microscope in the lab exceeded his limits. Better not to know.
Another choice drew him back to New York, an impulse he could afford to indulge regardless of the futility bill. He hadn’t even bothered to rationalize it to himself. When his contacts forwarded news of Napoleon’s resignation, Illya booked a flight and tried to ignore the unmoored sensation in his stomach. And now he was here, keeping an appointment he’d never expected would come to pass.
‘If the day comes that we both leave UNCLE alive, partner mine, this,’ Napoleon rapped on the table for emphasis, ‘is where we’ll meet. And whoever gets here first, waits for the other. Every night. Right here.’
If any UNCLE agent could grab the brass ring of a healthy fortieth birthday, of course it would be Napoleon. Luck was apparently still his stock in trade. That rueful acknowledgement came with its own mocking verdict of Illya’s reliance on calculated probabilities. In Napoleon’s voice, no less.
Now Illya came to honor a promise extracted in another lifetime, when they had been Waverly’s golden team. When they had been the closest of friends. And lovers.
Time moved on, though, sparing no one, and Illya knew better than most the impermanent nature of things. He considered second-guessing his decisions a spectacular waste of time, but now found himself hesitating with his hand on a doorknob, a hollow ache in his chest, and misgivings about what he might or might not find on the other side of that door.
The bar, their old watering hole, had not aged well, victimized by ferns and wicker. From the shadows just inside the doorway, Illya cataloged and dismissed the evidence of change with a quick assessment, jolted breathless by a larger awareness.
He’d always known when Napoleon was in a room, a burning perception that was as real as it was intangible - could predict with astonishing precision just when, where and how his partner would move through a space without sparing so much as a glance. The truth of that intuitive familiarity still lived within Illya, beating amazed counterpoint to his suspicion that this was a fool’s errand.
Instinctively accurate, Illya’s gaze focused on the well-dressed man at a corner table, still and self-assured, an island of unhurried calm anchored in the disjointed blur of activity.
Amid the noise and bustle of a Manhattan nightspot, Napoleon kept his own company. Carefree nonchalance had long been Napoleon’s specialty, but this was no pose with deceit lurking just beneath the surface. Essentially unchanged physically, there was a visible difference in his old partner’s manner that struck Illya hard, like the hammer of a gun slamming against its firing pin. Never before had Napoleon’s attitude breathed freedom like that, not even when they were locked in amorous overdrive.
The sheer pleasure of simply looking at Napoleon simmered in his veins. He’d never learned to take things for granted, and now he couldn’t move, stalled just inside the doorway. His fingers itched to touch, an irrational urge to confirm the evidence of his eyes.
A thousand memories suddenly clamored for attention, recollection no longer an affliction too painful to be endured. Raising the bar for each other, daring just one more risk, until rivalry shifted into friendship, and friendship morphed into feelings that threatened all equilibrium. Scalding thrills when his hands mapped Napoleon’s body, surveying the topography of desire.
He supposed it was a measure of their foolhardiness that those memories still had power over him.
Napoleon’s sole concession to the tedium of waiting was the cigarette dangling carelessly between relaxed fingers, a ribbon of smoke curling past his face. Caught between relief and apprehension at this evidence of an old stress-busting habit, at the insight that Napoleon was just as unsettled as he, Illya released the breath he’d been holding.
Across the room, Napoleon shifted and stretched, his gaze suddenly sharp and focused, provoking more heated remembrances of eloquent body language in and out of bed. Illya saw that Napoleon’s sense of him had registered, knew that Napoleon felt him like fine hot needles on the skin as much as he felt Napoleon. Amazement that their connection still flowed both ways thudded against his ribs with every heartbeat.
Illya had time before that gaze found him, could choose to melt further into the shadows that suited him so well, and slip out the door again, leaving their past undisturbed. Eventually Napoleon would tire of waiting and move on with the trajectory of life he’d subscribed to four years ago.
But cowardice had never been Illya's style, even if the knot of hope and fear clogged in his throat stubbornly refused to be swallowed down. Every muscle tightened like an overwound clock, adrenaline short-circuiting old reflexes that didn’t quite know what to do anymore.
Mouth suddenly dry as dust, Illya stepped out of the shadows. His weak leg protested and only sheer will power prevented a stumble. Napoleon’s eyes were already on him by then, not at all covertly. No one had ever looked at him the way Napoleon did; no one had ever made him feel the way Napoleon did, so thoroughly known that he might as well be stripped naked inside and out.
It was that sense of exposure that had unhitched his temper the last time they’d seen each other, in his hospital room in the aftermath of their final assignment, the one that ranked as a full-scale failure, except for the fact that they both had escaped with their lives.
The last time his stomach had felt this queasy, he’d watched Napoleon take that failure and use it as a springboard into additional commitment, with Waverly’s full approval.
Now the warmth in Napoleon’s stare melted defenses Illya hadn’t even known he was wearing. Thoughtlessly, instinctively, Illya signaled back with a subtle movement of his hand, an indicator of acceptance and trust, and with that small gesture set right something that had come unraveled years before.
Anything that truly mattered between them had never been entrusted to the imprecision of speech. Their endless stream of barbed, meaningless words had merely been a tool, used to misdirect others away from the body language that measured the truth of who and what they were.
An impossible future beckoned, alive with unknown possibilities and potential risks. Illya stepped forward into it, into Napoleon’s welcoming arms, already feeling the inevitable tilt of a life in transformation.